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Concept of government in which the state plays a key role in protecting and promoting the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those who lack the minimal provisions for a good life. The term may be applied to a variety of forms of economic and social organization. A basic feature of the welfare state is social insurance, intended to provide benefits during periods of greatest need (e.g., old age, illness, unemployment). The welfare state also usually includes public provision of education, health services, and housing. Such provisions are less extensive in the U.S. than in many European countries, where comprehensive health coverage and state-subsidized university-level education have been common. In countries with centrally planned economies, the welfare state also covers employment and administration of consumer prices. Most nations have instituted at least some of the measures associated with the welfare state; Britain adopted comprehensive social insurance in 1948, and in the U.S., social-legislation programs such as the New Deal and the Fair Deal were based on welfare-state principles. Scandinavian countries provide state aid for the individual in almost all phases of life.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on welfare state, visit Britannica.com.